Opportunity rocks 

How the Victory Smokes came to light

The secret to success is oftentimes as simple as being in the right place at the right time. For Missoula’s Victory Smokes, that equation has been taken to the extreme, as the local garage rockers seem to be everywhere all the time. In just two quick years the grimy group of twentysomethings has gone from ragtag opening act to up-and-coming concert closer and, more importantly, a fixture of the local music scene. Exactly how they made the ascent—which culminates with a CD release party and an audacious 53-show tour kickoff on Friday, Aug. 17, at the Badlander—is a lesson in basic DIY opportunism.

The first break came at the old Raven Café, which closed late last year. The band—comprised of frontman Michael Gill, his brother/drummer Patrick Gill, guitarist Tony Matts, keyboardist Jared Brennan and original bassist Ben Miller—had been together since 2005 but was struggling to land consistent gigs. In February 2006, Michael Gill and de facto band manager Jon Markley, who were both working at the fledgling restaurant, found a solution when they convinced the owners to start hosting evening shows to help bring in extra cash. The result was a complete reversal of the Victory Smokes lack of exposure: If you ever saw any of the approximately 60 concerts at The Raven Café between February and October 2006, chances are you saw the Victory Smokes in one of the opening slots.

“Truthfully, it was mostly because we couldn’t find anyone else to play,” says Michael Gill. “But the thing was, it wasn’t just playing. We were setting up the shows, booking them, promoting them and putting up the bands in our house. We were getting experience not only playing live, but in every aspect of being a band.”

That was just the start. As the Victory Smokes booked more and more shows, they met more and more musicians and absorbed whatever lessons were available. Whether it was a late-night listening session with veteran Athens, Ga.-based psychedelic rockers Elf Power—“We just sat back and watched what CDs they pulled out,” says Gill—or speaking with like-minded younger bands, like St. Louis’ So Many Dynamos and Bellingham’s Racetrack, they collected advice on the general dos and don’ts of rock and roll.

“We knew nothing,” says Miller. “We figured things out mostly by just listening.”

So even after The Raven closed, the Victory Smokes had made enough connections to continue booking shows at other local venues—and keep creating their own breaks. Just last week their luck struck again when the Trashies cancelled six hours before they were supposed to take the stage at Total Fest VI. The Victory Smokes—who weren’t on the festival’s bill, but had bravely volunteered to host the 13-person contingent of Salt Lake City’s Vile Blue Shades in a two-bedroom apartment—got the call to fill the void and ended up playing the closing set of the event’s first night.

“That was huge for us,” says Gill. “Some bands wait years to play Total Fest, a lot of bands get rejected. All we had to do was all try to get off work.”

While the Victory Smokes were busy drinking themselves into favor with more experienced bands, and playing weekly, if not more often, another more important aspect of the group developed: their music. While the Victory Smokes have maintained the same grimy exterior and garage quality present when they started, they’re a tighter outfit than before. It’s hard to call it refined—this is, after all, the band that played shirtless on the side of Lookout Pass in the dead of winter—but there’s a new sense of purpose in their sound.

“We’re more consistent now,” says Gill in assessing how the band came of age at The Raven. “It was all the little things a band needs to learn, like changing your strings before a show or knowing how not to get nervous in front of…certain crowds.”

“We can play drunk now,” adds Miller proudly. “We used to have guidelines—only two Sparks before we played was the limit. We don’t have limits anymore. Sometimes that’s a good thing. I think.”

The newfound maturity comes through on Walkie Trash Talkie, their debut full-length effort (they released a four-song EP last year). The CD, which is being released on local label Fire Fly as well as on vinyl through Markley’s own Dead Hipster label, is representative of the band’s raucous live sets. Concert favorites like the churning, anthemic “Sexy Party” are updated here—Michael Gill doesn’t use a megaphone for the song’s chorus, for instance, as he did on the EP—without losing any of the attitude, and slower cuts like “Respond” demonstrate a raw but gentler, almost poppy touch.

“This is a band that’s paid its dues,” says Fire Fly founder Ben Rouner. “It took me about 30 seconds of hearing the rough cuts to know that I wanted to be involved. It’s not pristine, it still has its rough edges, but I think it represents the best of what this town is offering.”

To help support Walkie Trash Talkie, the band—now with bassist Joe Brennan, lately of the International Playboys, who is replacing the engaged Miller—is set to embark on what they’re touting as the longest tour ever by a Missoula band. For the next 10 weeks, they’ll travel by van from Missoula east to Minneapolis (including a stop at Miller’s wedding), then on to New England before swinging through the Deep South for shows in Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. Their longest previous tour was four days.

“We actually get along,” says Gill. “When we started the band a lot of us weren’t real good musicians—and maybe we still aren’t—but we picked people who wanted to play music together. I didn’t want to have a band that was going to punch each other, or a band that was going to break up in six months. I wanted a group where we were all on the same wavelength.”

And now they’re set to apply the same immersed approach that gained them local recognition to a broader cross-country audience.

“This is all part of the learning experience,” says Gill. “A lot of people [in Missoula] have heard us—except all those old fogies who went to Jay’s…Now’s our time to see if we can make it happen on a bigger scale.”

The Victory Smokes play a CD release party and tour kickoff show Friday, Aug. 17, at the Badlander at 9 PM. Kentucky Sound Arsenal, Apples of Discord and Dagger of the Mind open. $5. They also play an all-ages show Saturday, Aug. 18, at 9 pm at Dauphines. $5.
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